Liberal Education

Toward a Thriving and Inclusive Intercultural Community

Just over fifty years ago, I began my senior year on the bucolic campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. By the time of my graduation on April 27, 1969, I had been affiliated with the university for seven years, having studied cello there since the age of fourteen.

Yet this familiarity did little to quell the profound alienation that I felt as a first-year student navigating the predominantly white spaces on campus.

Miami had about ten thousand students at the time, only eighty of whom were African American, and only two of whom were in my residence hall. For the three years I had journeyed to Oxford by bus every Saturday morning to study cello with Professor Elizabeth Potteiger, I never considered the demographic composition of the university, so it came as a great surprise to me that I did not feel comfortable in my new setting. Significantly, I never spoke to anyone about the alienation I felt—not my parents, Professor Potteiger, or other students.

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois penned these prophetic words: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”1

Recent events in our own country and around the world have demonstrated that diversity and globalism are as much of a challenge for the twenty-first century as for the twentieth century. It saddens me that students of color are still dealing with some of the same issues of alienation that I experienced fifty years ago.

I would have thought that by now higher education would have learned how to use diversity as an educational benefit to change the campus culture—in other words, to expand representational diversity as a means of ensuring that all members of a college community, regardless of their race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation, felt included and thrived.

So how do we accelerate meaningful change? We already know that tomorrow’s students are more likely to be female, Hispanic, black, or Asian. What must higher education’s responsibility be to future generations of our evolving nation?

In the United States, higher education and democratic ideals have been inextricably linked since the nation’s founding. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”2 Of course, when Jefferson spoke of “the whole mass of people” he was referring to white men.

As our nation grew, so, too, did our commitment to education. In the nineteenth century, the government invested in land-grant colleges—the precursor to many public universities—to extend educational opportunity beyond the elite and use “scientific methods” to foster economic growth. Further expansions in higher education, driven by abolitionists and freed slaves following emancipation, by the GI Bill following World War II, and by the inclusion of women and racial minorities later in the twentieth century, expanded American democratic ideals that more fully included the people of the nation.

In fact, President Truman’s 1947 Commission on Higher Education was very clear that “equal opportunity for all persons . . . without regard to economic status, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, or ancestry is a major goal of American democracy.” Echoing Jefferson’s earlier writings, the commission noted, “Only an informed, thoughtful, tolerant people can maintain and develop a free society.”3

But society has become increasingly critical of higher education—and perhaps for good reason. Two decades ago, the United States ranked first in the world in four-year (tertiary) degree attainment among twenty-five-to-thirty-four-year-olds according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, before dropping perilously for decades. In 2009, President Barack Obama “sought to stir the nation’s competitive spirit with a pledge to retake the lead by 2020,” only to watch the United States fall to fourteenth in the world in 2011.4

The Obama administration’s focus on access and affordability enabled a rise to tenth place in 2016, but the pursuit remains lofty. The Trump administration’s interest in merging the Departments of Education and Labor likely reflects an emphasis on workforce development over civic engagement, even as the events of Charlottesville, Virginia—the site of a deadly rally of white supremacists in August 2017—remind us of the responsibilities we have to share wisdom that promotes greater tolerance and understanding.

So one response of higher education must be to continue its essential role in educating the citizenry, as there is still much work to be done to ensure that our educational institutions reach all of those who can benefit from, and contribute to, our intellectual communities.

We know that opportunity is central to the American narrative, and education is an essential component of opportunity. Yet all too often, access to high-quality higher education “remains markedly stratified along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.”5

In 2030, first-generation students and students of color will make up 50 percent of those graduating from US high schools. While half of all people from high-income families possess a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four, just one in ten people from low-income families do.6 Our democracy cannot flourish when education is the privilege of the few.

This belief has been reaffirmed by social scientists. I often quote from a 2015 New York Times article, “Diversity Makes You Brighter,”7 and the similarly titled Scientific American article, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.”8 The Times article describes the outcomes of an academic study in which participants competed in groups to find accurate answers to problems. The researchers observed the behaviors of homogeneous and diverse groups (meaning that diverse groups included at least one participant of another ethnicity or race). The results were striking. Diverse groups were 58 percent more accurate than homogeneous groups in solving problems, and these contrasts held true in separate studies conducted in the United States and in Asia.

Further, the article states, “diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.” In short, “diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions.”

The researchers summarized their findings in this manner: “Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.”

Why, then, are we not yet using our diversity to lift our nation? Because in many ways we are actively resisting the very kind of diversity the authors describe.

In their emerging intellectual lives, college students sometimes cling to familiar social structures—engaging only with individuals who look or talk like them, consuming media that reinforces their own beliefs, or avoiding conversations that cause discomfort.

In these matters, students mimic the behaviors of the larger citizenry. In The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop examines how Americans increasingly self-select into homogeneous groups. Bishop, his partner Robert Cushing (a retired sociologist and statistician from the University of Texas), and a team of collaborators analyzed data such as voting records, family income data, and poll numbers to discern the ways in which Americans were sorting themselves.

Bishop found that “by the turn of the twenty-first century, it seemed as though the country was separating in every way conceivable.”9

Where once citizens moved about the United States to seek economic opportunity, this new migration was encouraged by what Bishop described as “lifestyle choices.” He stated, “We have built a country where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”10

This is likely one of the reasons the Public Religion Research Institute found in its surveys of Americans that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Latinx have social networks that consist solely of people from their own race.11

However comfortable, this kind of sorting doesn’t foster the respectful exchange of ideas optimal for democratic societies. Yet the college campus offers an ideal environment for questioning existing biases and seeking out people of different backgrounds and perspectives.

Since its founding centuries ago, US higher education has relied upon diversity of thought and the questioning of truth to advance its shared mission. Within our institutions, our faculty and students are taught to question received wisdom as a means of creating new understanding. Within our classrooms and research labs, we celebrate ways in which expertise across all lines of difference unites to offer solutions to the world’s most challenging problems—curing disease, growing economies, addressing climate change, furthering democracies, and promoting peace.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, said, “To work effectively as an agent of change in a pluralistic society, it is necessary to be able to connect with people different from oneself.”12

Indeed, vigorous debate and the contest of ideas are central to higher education. Students learn best not only when they’re challenged to tackle hard questions and engage viewpoints different from their own but when they’re taught to have these conversations using the potent triad of energy, substance, and civility. Institutions of higher education are uniquely positioned, and have a unique responsibility, to model this kind of substantive and civil disagreement.

Like many institutions, the University of Richmond (UR) fosters these discussions in myriad ways. Our annual Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series invites participants to share diverse perspectives on topics of importance to America. This year we will address free speech and viewpoint diversity in higher education, having discussed US immigration a year ago. We’ve also invited Zachary Wood, author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, to host a student forum on navigating difficult conversations. Students are called to actively participate in these opportunities and then test their views in their classrooms, residence halls, and social networks. As well, institutions should regularly survey their communities to better understand change. We are conducting a campus climate survey this academic year, and I look forward to seeing how data support or refute the assumptions we all inherently make.

Campuses will also need to leverage the diversity that already exists to ensure that our graduates don’t continue to sort when they leave. At UR, the percentage of US students of color has increased from 11 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in the class of 2022; including international students of color, that percentage rises to 35 percent. Our Pell Grant–eligible cohort was only 9 percent in 2007 and has increased to 16 percent in the class of 2022. The work we are doing, and the success we are having, can contribute to important conversations about inclusivity, encourage us to pursue change, and propel us all to even greater successes for our students.

At UR, we have made the pursuit of a “thriving and inclusive community” one of the five pillars of our new strategic plan, “Forging Our Future, Building from Strength.” As part of our efforts, we established the President’s Advisory Committee on Making Excellence Inclusive to “examine closely the lived experiences of UR students.” In initial discussions, the committee concluded that thriving UR students (1) actively engage in their educational experiences and in the life of the campus, (2) recognize and prioritize their health and well-being, (3) seek opportunities for intellectual and personal growth and development, (4) encounter physical safety and belonging in this community, and (5) pursue purposeful professional and personal experiences after graduation. During the 2018–19 academic year, we will be developing quantitative and qualitative metrics to monitor thriving and inclusion.

Every institution can play a role in creating inclusive and intercultural communities where all students thrive. UR is one of a small cohort of universities that are both need-blind and meet the full demonstrated financial need of all of our traditional undergraduate students; UR also does not consider a family’s ability to pay when making admission decisions for US citizens and US permanent residents. For Virginia residents whose family income is sixty thousand dollars or less, we guarantee grant and scholarship aid for the full cost of tuition, room, and board. This has opened UR’s doors to the most capable students, regardless of socioeconomic background, and has helped double the number of students who are the first in their family to attend college—as I was in mine.

We have developed award-winning integrated science programs, such as URISE (University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience) and SMART (Science, Math, and Research Training), that support underrepresented students with summer programs before their first year, close mentoring, faculty-led research, and career counseling in STEM disciplines. Through the Richmond Guarantee, each undergraduate may receive up to four thousand dollars to support a faculty-mentored research project or an unpaid internship during the summer.

More than ever before, our country needs educated citizens with insights that can come only from a firm grounding in intellectual thought that is linked to a deep sense of personal and social responsibility. In this age of political polarization, higher education must remain a training ground for them—a place where we model and celebrate the ideals of democracy, nurture the free exchange of ideas, and see the promise in every student.

For those of us in higher education, this is our call to action—to educate and lead the next generation of citizens of all backgrounds and perspectives, who will work together to harness their cognitive friction to solve the challenges of their day. Fifty years hence, this is the new story we must have told.

NOTES

1. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, 1994; Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).

2. Thomas Jefferson to Uriah Forrest, with enclosed excerpt of letter to James Madison, December 31, 1787, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0490.

3. President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy, Volume I: Establishing the Goals (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1947), 3.

4. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Population with Tertiary Education,” accessed October 22, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1787/0b8f90e9-en ; Daniel de Vise, “U.S. Falls in Global Rankings of Young Adults Who Finish College,” Washington Post, September 13, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/us-falls-in-global-rankin....

5. Keith Witham, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon, America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015).

6. M. Cahalan, L. W. Perna, M. Yamashita, J. Wright, and S. Santillan, 2018 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: Historical Trend Report (Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education, and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 146, http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Edu... ; Peace Bransberger, “Fewer Students, More Diversity: The Shifting Demographics of High School Graduates,” dataINSIGHTS (July 2017); Jim Paterson, “2030 Vision,” National Association for College Admission Counseling, https://www.nacacnet.org/news--publications/journal-of-college-admission....

7. Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, “Diversity Makes You Brighter,” New York Times, December 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/opinion/diversity-makes-you-brighter.....

8. Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, October 1, 2014.

9. Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Mariner Books, 2009), 132.

10. For more information on different voting habits by people living in close proximity, see Matthew Bloch, Larry Buchanan, and Josh Katz, “An Extremely Detailed Map of the 2016 Election,” New York Times, July 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/upshot/election-2016-voting-pre....

11. Daniel Cox, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, and Robert P. Jones, “Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks,” Public Religion Research Institute, August, 3, 2016, https://www.prri.org/research/poll-race-religion-politics-americans-soci....

12. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 290.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


RONALD A. CRUTCHER is president of the University of Richmond.

Previous Issues